Space. The final frontier for humanity, but one of the very first frontiers for podcast writers. I mean honestly, you can’t throw a blue yeti without hitting an entertaining, original, scrappy young podcast set in space.
Vast Horizon Review
By Lex Scott
Space. The final frontier for humanity (other than the depths of our own oceans anyway, but that’s a whole other article), but one of the very first frontiers for podcast writers. I mean honestly, you can’t throw a blue yeti without hitting an entertaining, original, scrappy young podcast set in space. Some of them are truly excellent (lookin’ at you Girl in Space), and some are tragically lacking in one or two key areas while still being excellently mixed and produced. Most though, unfortunately, simply fall into the broad category of “pretty good”.
Don’t get me wrong, pretty good is a damn hard target to hit. I would sacrifice a lot to elevate some of my previous work to the level of pretty good (Quest Academy, oh what you could have been if I’d been competent or had experience…), and because my subscription list isn’t very large by most standards pretty good will often keep me thoroughly entertained in lieu of the same 100 songs I’ve got loaded onto my phone.
But pretty good won’t make you stand out. People tend to remember three kinds of things: their favourites, (coloured by personal experience so it’s a different beast), the greats, and the worst. No one ever remembers those movies that were just okay, the ones you went to because it was hot and you needed to kill a few hours. It is to this category unfortunately we have to relegate Vast Horizon, the newest entry from Travis Vengroff and K.A. Statz’ Fool & Scholar Productions.
Vast follows the now standard “Girl in Space + AI” set-up, though of course with it’s own twists: Dr Nolira Eck (an agronomist, not an MD) suddenly and painfully wakes up on The Bifrost, a massive colony ship that is mysteriously deserted but for her, a mysterious and as yet un-”seen” bipedal presence, and a dry AI that has lots of trouble with context clues.
In terms of set-up it’s rather economical. Once the story gets going we establish very quickly Nolira’s position, location, and lack of memory (another well worn but useful trope for easing an audience in: making the main character need just as much hand holding as the audience), while also doing a good job of presenting and explaining what will be one of the shows primary sources of tension: Nolira’s bionic limbs.
We also establish that the AI is unable to provide Nolira with any concrete answers as to why she was unconscious, where everyone is or even what happened to the ship, due to lost or corrupted data. The pair need each other, Nolira to physically go places and manually do things, the AI to provide her with in-the-moment info and a general plan on how to proceed if they’re going to take control of their situation.
Like I said, it’s a pretty solid premise that has a lot of potential. Unfortunately it consistently fails to hit the mark in most areas of production.
The show’s strongest area is definitely the sound design, which for the most part does an excellent job of setting up and presenting an audibly tangible world for us to immerse our ears in. But, it’s lacking in certain cues that would help convey physical action (a character apparently falling, which I didn’t realise until she was struggling to escape a hole), or time passing while an action is taken. Little things that would complete the picture for us and really sell the story and presentation. It’s the kind of thing that would be so easy to miss for anyone not a professional but as a listener is so jarring, and always takes me out of the moment.
The show’s weakest area I hate to say is probably writing, though the issues with the writing are also tightly bound up with similar issues in directing and editing.
Somehow, and I cannot figure out why, the overall pace feels simultaneously both too fast and too slow. Now, this is obviously a problem with the writing, as overall pace is something that’s present in the script from the very first draft: the speed at which plot moments happen one after another will always be right there on the page first (and it’s the hardest thing to manage I think, especially for a new writer), and that’s where you always have the most control to change it.
But, editing together a finished product is essentially doing a final draft of the script, so it’s a problem with editing too. And while directing you need to be aware of what the scene needs and coach that performance out, so it’s also a problem with the directing.
From line to line the dialogue itself is quite flat, though this has to do with delivery as well as actual writing. There are some lines that are just too wordy and clumsy, as though when they were written no one ever said them out loud to test them, and there are several instances where the clearly british-accented actor is pronouncing words with a distinctly american intonation (mom being the most egregious, please let your actors just say words in their native manner).
There are also several instances where Nolira’s actor just doesn’t quite reach the emotional heights required for a scene, though I would be hesitant to put the blame for that on her. It’s the directors job to coax the necessary emotion into a performance, and a good casting director will always be looking for the range an actor is capable of. Then once an actor is cast, a good writer will tailor lines and emotional beats to a performer, leaning into their strengths and being aware of their abilities. When everyone is working in harmony, every moving part compliments the others, and actors will never fail to amaze you with what they’re capable of. But if you don’t take your choices into consideration, if you just plow ahead without fine tuning your team and the new circumstances, it will always ring hollow.
The actual plotting of the narrative, and the “this therefore that” manner in which it proceeds is actually quite well done. The episodes so far have been 38, 38, and 28 minutes respectively, with not too much time taken up by pre and post show housekeeping, and each one makes good use of that time to progress events and throw obstacles in our protagonists path. Which is why it’s so odd that in the moment each episode still manages to feel both too slow and too fast.
Overall, I think this is a lackluster show from a team that should know better. The main actor, Siobhan Lumsden, is clearly skilled but just as obviously miscast in the role, while the writing and directing are well short of what I would expect from a team with at least six other shows under their belts. The story is well-trod territory, the tropes are well established in audiences minds at this point; fertile ground for a more creative team to subvert expectations, here a bland and muddy path for people who just want to rehash what’s gone before, minus the character or charm.
And again, although the sound design is overall pretty good, given the breadth of their experience I would expect them to be able to avoid the pitfalls they’ve fallen prey to here.
So, I would say feel free to skip this one unless your queue is empty and you’re in desperate need of a new show.
And then there was talk of an award being rescinded, due to “an uncomfortably high amount of emails” regarding one of the recipients and their behavior within the audio drama community.
A letter from the editor:
So the winners have been announced!
And then there was talk of an award being rescinded, due to “an uncomfortably high amount of emails” regarding one of the recipients and their behavior within the audio drama community.
Then of course the Parsec committee decided the award would stand as their task is to judge only the work presented.
This of course led to many in the community to sound out their grievances on social media.
A post from the admin of the Audio Drama Production Podcast Facebook community page explained that they had cause to remove this person from the group in the summer due to his “vitriolic” conduct towards other members of the group.
The person at the sharp end of all this commotion is Edward Champion (The Grey Area), and this is not the first time these charges have been issued.
First in the literary community some years ago, and now here in the audio drama community, many have come forward to give accounts of their dealings with him.
I have personally been witness to quite a lot of his vitriol: I have seen unsolicited emails telling the recipient they should go and seek professional help, as clearly their attitude doesn’t conform with societal norms; I have been sent screenshots of Facebook and Twitter posts (that have then been rescinded) that use phrases even Donald Trump would blush at; I have heard threats of physical violence at podcast conferences, stalking and intimidation of creators AND their families, and some seriously heinous name calling just because a post wasn’t retweeted! All of this mounting up over the last twelve to eighteen months.
Not only are the community finally calling time on his behavior, but many are also looking to the arguable failings of the Parsec Awards. In their defense, it is made up of volunteers, but there are a number of basic checks and balances that need to be addressed here.
The following is an op-ed from a member of the audio drama community that felt compelled to step up and tell his story, as well as others that came forward in his support. They do so with a calmness that belies the gravity of the issue, something I would not afford it.
If you closely follow the Audio Drama industry, this week has had some surprises. On December 16 The Parsec Awards Committee sent out an email listing their 2018 winners, a little more than 24 hours later they sent a second email stating that they’re deliberating on rescinding an award from a creator, and on December 19 the committee sent a third email stating that they will honor the original recipients and no award will be rescinded.
In the third email, the Award Committee stated:
“It is the goal of The Parsecs to judge solely on the merit of the content and not on gender, heritage, religious belief, sexual orientation, politics, or other factors not in the podcast as presented to the audience.”
It didn’t take long for members of the audio drama industry to take to Twitter voicing their concern, and opposition for Parsec’s choice.
In defense of the award committee, they stated quite openly that they’ve never had to handle a situation like this before, and while many will be quick to anger, this seems like an opportune time to educate the audio drama industry as a whole to the repeated actions of a toxic creator. The purpose of this essay isn’t to shame the Parsec Committee, but rather to inform them of the scope of one individual’s harmful actions, and ensure that this creator isn’t able to abuse or harass others in the future.
Before I continue, I’d like to be upfront about a few things. First, this essay is to inform other creators and members of the Audio Drama Industry of the events that have transpired over the course of the last years, and the potential danger of letting these actions go unchecked. Second, I’ve been attacked by the individual in question in the past (I go in detail about this further into the essay). Lastly, I’ve included the accounts of other creators who interacted with the person, some of these accounts will have names tied to them, others will be anonymous as per their wishes.
Finally, before I dive in, I’ve been grappling with how to open this story, or how to begin, and even if I should attach my name to this piece or write under a pseudonym. I might receive flack for this piece, it could be deemed unprofessional and slanderous, it could really come back and hurt me and my loved ones. The person I’m writing about has attacked me in the past, and come after many of my friends and fellow creators. I was on the fence, but after discovering how many people have been attacked, and seeing Parsec’s decision, I’ve decided this story is necessary. I’ve decided the best approach is to speak honestly, and publicly.
For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Pacific Obadiah. I’m a college student and in my free time, I make audio dramas. I’ve been creating audio dramas for almost three years now, with friends I met on my university campus, and fellow creators I met in the audio drama community.
A close friend of mine was excited to see the new Parsec Awards Winners, but when they saw Ed Champion’s name on the list, they knew they had to write to Parsec and inform the committee of the unprofessional manner Champion had interacted with them. My friend then reached out to another person who he knew had negative interactions with Champion, it wasn’t long until several people, myself included, had emailed Parsec expressing their concern over Champion’s award.
Shortly thereafter, a discussion was sparked in a forum for audio drama creators. It was here that I found a surprisingly high number of creators had very negative encounters with Champion.
I first talked with Travis Vengroff about his experience with the award winner. Full disclaimer, Vengroff was nominated in the same category as Champion. Vengroff first met Champion when he put out an all-call for the second season of his show Liberty: Critical Research. Vengroff remarked that
“There was one actor in particular who was a perfect fit for a couple of parts. His name was Ed Champion, and he had a chicken in his recording studio, which I thought was pretty funny ‘cause in some of the outtakes with him he tells his chicken to shut up, which was really ridiculous and funny.”
While things started off well, this didn’t last.
A while after Vengroff and Champion met, Champion launched his own podcast, around the same time Vengroff’s wife, Kaitlin Statz, launched a social media campaign, #ADPodBingo. The purpose of #ADPodBingo was to promote audio drama shows within similar genres, such as Sci-Fi, Horror, or Fantasy. The first few boards became pretty popular, and creators began reaching out to Statz requesting to be on the next board. Champion’s was one of the many requests.
Champion first requested to be apart of the ADPodBingo before his show had launched, having only released the first trailer. Statz decided to focus on shows with released episodes and didn’t include Champion on the next board. A month later the couple released a Sci-Fi themed board, and received a letter from Champion expressing his resentment about not being included on the Sci-Fi board, even though the couple believed Champion’s show (now with only the first episode released) didn’t fall into the Sci-Fi category.
The next board followed another genre, and Champion’s show wasn’t included because his show didn’t fit that genre either. As Travis put it
“Every [board] we did, his show did not meet the genre, and he was upset he was not in it, and eventually he blew up into this Twitter rant about how horrible Kaitlin was, which was upsetting to me, because she’s my wife, and she’s literally done nothing to the guy. [Champion] blew up further and sent [Kaitlin] a really mean-spirited message on Facebook.”
Vengroff messaged Champion and explained to him why he wasn’t included on any of the ADPodBingo boards so far, and despite Champion’s decorum, and attack on Statz, Vengroff tried to clear the air. Everything seemed to be okay until a few weeks later: Champion sent Vengroff a Facebook message, upset that he wasn’t included on another ADPodBingo; This caused Vengroff to block Champion, and later, pushed Vengroff to scrap recordings Champion had created, and recast multiple roles he’d already edited into a then-unreleased podcast.
Similarly, another creator, Lauren Nelson, had a negative interaction with Champion. Nelson first worked with Champion on a side project that later fell to the wayside. Though her interactions with Champion left a bad taste in her mouth, Nelson remarked
“Initially, I wrote off [his] strange behavior as a given when you’re working with creatives. But he was overly familiar, and I should have known better. Knowing more about his history now, I cringe at the memory of sharing personal details with him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he used them against me eventually.”
Nelson likely would have moved on from the whole situation, until the recent series of emails she received from Parsec, and seeing other creators discuss Champion’s actions. Nelson felt moved to take action. As she put it
“I take great pride in crafting a strong female character, and there’s no world in which Addison [The protagonist of Nelson’s show] would approve of me giving someone like Ed a broader platform. I cut ties and made a public apology for not better researching my cast.”
Nelson posted on Facebook, talking about the choice she made to not work with someone who has abused people in the past, and it wasn’t long until Champion messaged her.
“The reaction was swift. Though I had already planned to write [Champion] out of the show, he sent a threatening email about using his voice. The threats were baseless, but intimidation was the point. I also received a string of text messages, one of which said I was “pure evil.” No idea what will come next.”
Nelson hopes that by speaking out, she’ll save others from Champion’s, and other toxic creators harmful messages.
“I’m hoping that breaking the silence helps others make more informed decisions, and helps keep a community that matters greatly to me a lot safer.”
My own experience with Champion is quite similar to the two aforementioned incidents. Not long ago I was a member of an independent audio drama network, FateCrafters. We were a small and tight-knit group of creators who promoted one another and often collaborated. From time to time, we would open our network to prospective shows looking to join, and during one of our open application seasons, Champion applied to our network.
While my NDA restricts me from talking too much about our process of approving or denying shows, Champion’s show was voted on, and rejected. Shortly after being notified of his rejection, Champion took to Facebook and on both his personal and a group page (both posts are now deleted), he spoke negatively about our network. While I had never had more than brief, and wholly positive interactions with Champion up until this point, after seeing his posts putting down our network, I made the decision to personally stop retweeting Champion’s posts.
Champion reached out to me, asking if I was “… carrying out a FateCrafters omerta against me.” I responded honestly, informing Champion that I did decide to be less vocal in my support of his show after his negative posts, to which Champion responded with a tirade comparing me to a Klansman. For those interested, I’ve included screenshots of our short interaction.
While my interaction was quite mild (and trust me, this is comparatively mild), not everyone was so lucky.
What perturbed me most was the scrutiny Champion put on our social media interactions. #AudioDramaSunday is a popular hashtag that many fans and creators use on a weekly basis to discover new shows, and it was over the course of a few short weeks that Champion paid close attention to if and how I was interacting with his every post before deciding to confront me, and as I learned, many other creators.
Jeff Van Dreason and Alexander Danner told me of their experience with Champion. They said Champion had messaged them, stating that he noticed they usually liked any post that mentioned their show, but not the posts Champion made. Then Danner said it was like Champion was…
“… counting our Twitter likes to track whether we were paying attention to him or not. I think that was the thing that set him off–we never liked his tweets.”
One day, Van Dreason was commenting on a post in a public forum, and Champion lashed out, claiming Van Dreason never heard his side of the story- It’s worth noting, the original discussion had nothing to do with Champion. Van Dreason decided not to engage. A while later Champion sent a long letter to the creators, Danner said:
“It was like the sort of thing you might send to a former friend who you’d had a bad falling out with if you wanted to salvage the relationship without actually admitting you did anything wrong.”
Van Dreason felt similarly, stating:
His demeanor was as if we were super close friends who had suddenly ghosted him, which of course wasn’t the case. I’m not sure I’d even call him an acquaintance. We spoke very little before all of this, which made the way he was acting out even stranger to us.
Some of these interactions do reach past the screen: one creator told me they opted not to attend a live community event that he had bought plane tickets for after he learned that Champion was going to be in attendance.
I’ve only provided the accounts of a handful of people, but there are many more that Champion has gone after and harassed for matters big and small, or perhaps just because he felt like it. I hope that by publishing this essay, more will stand up and allow their voices to be heard, to hold Champion accountable for his actions. It’s not too late to improve, Ed, but there’s no way you can continue down this road.
It seems Champion feels entitled to the audio drama community as if he deserves the likes, the promotion, and the work. Yet those creators Champion has worked with haven’t been given the respect or professionalism, they deserve. I worry that Champion’s recent laurels will open more opportunities for him, which will lead to his continued harassing of those in this growing industry.
I urge the Parsec Award Committee to put a policy in place to prevent abusers from receiving their award in the future.
Pacific S. Obadiah
Since editing this article, dozens from the audio drama community have taken to social media to publicly announce their stories of harassment, and their regret at not coming forward sooner, including one of the voluntary judges for the Parsec Awards.
This community is a bastion for inclusion, and a powerhouse for social justice. One can only hope that this boil, in it’s relatively young existence doesn’t need lancing again.